How the Iowa caucuses work, part 9 (w/poll)

Cross-posted at Daily Kos and MyDD. Please take the poll and comment. Now’s a good time to discuss the merits of the system we experienced last night.

When I publish a diary criticizing the caucus system, I usually hear from at least one person defending the caucuses.

This diary lists the arguments I’ve heard in favor of the caucus system, along with my responses.

More is after the jump.

In case you missed the earlier installments in the series:

How the Iowa caucuses work, part 1 (basic elements of the caucus system)

How the Iowa caucuses work, part 2 (corrects an error in part 1 and discusses who is over-represented and who is under-represented when delegates are counted)

How the Iowa caucuses work, part 3 (why it’s hard to turn out caucus-goers)

How the Iowa caucuses work, part 4 (more about why caucus turnout is low)

How the Iowa caucuses work, part 5 (on second choices and caucus math)

How the Iowa caucuses work, part 6 (on how precinct captains help their candidates before caucus night)

How the Iowa caucuses work, part 7 (why it’s hard to figure out how well the candidates are doing in Iowa)

How the Iowa caucuses work, part 8 (on the many ways to win your precinct)

Back to the topic of why some people like the caucus system and my responses to their arguments.

1. It’s good to limit participation to a small segment of the electorate that is highly engaged.

Parts 1 through 4 of this series discussed the factors that keep turnout low in the Iowa caucuses. From time to time someone tells me that it’s good to weed out those only casually interested in politics. Large numbers of caucus-goers thoroughly research the candidates and see more than one of them in person. Shouldn’t we want the electorate to be highly informed people who are willing to invest time in making this decision?

It’s a safe bet that the person who makes this argument has not spent a lot of time trying to turn out caucus-goers. When you canvass or call active Democrats in your precinct, it won’t be long before you encounter people who are highly engaged but, through no fault of their own, are unable to attend the caucuses. The Des Moines Register recently reported on the problem of shift workers, including a large number of first responders, whose employers refused to give them the night of January 3 off. This New York Times article also quotes shift workers who are following the race closely and would very much like to participate, but they just can’t get the night off.

Asked about an emergency room worker who wants to caucus but has to work on January 3, Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan told the New York Times, “there’s always the next cycle.” Sorry, that is not good enough.

Canvassing my neighborhood last weekend, I encountered two people who won’t be able to caucus tonight because of health problems that keep them housebound. (I offered them rides to the caucus, but that is not the problem. They can’t leave their homes.)

In 2004 a very educated neighbor who never misses an election couldn’t come to our caucus because she was recovering from foot surgery.

I know several families in other precincts who had already made travel plans for the holidays and won’t be back in time to caucus. They have never missed a caucus before and are sick about not being able to stand up for their candidates. Changing their plane tickets would have cost hundreds of dollars.

Some might object that a few people’s misfortune doesn’t invalidate the benefit of higher quality decision-making by a narrow electorate. Won’t that bring us closer to the ideal of deliberative democracy?

If we’re honest, we’ve probably all had the experience of listening to an ignorant person and wishing that person’s vote didn’t carry the same weight as our own vote.

But in this country we don’t require prospective voters to pass public affairs quizzes or prove their commitment by spending many hours researching the candidates’ policy offerings. The Voting Rights Act prohibited literacy tests for good reasons, and while the caucuses are not subject to federal election requirements, I support the principles that underlie the Voting Rights Act.

Caucus or primary, some voters will make their choice for dumb reasons. So be it. I would like to see more people participate in the political process, and I reject the elitist argument that fewer voters will lead to better outcomes.

Regarding voters’ decision-making, some people defend the caucuses because

2. The caucus system requires a certain amount of deliberation before people make their final choice.

Dan Conley articulated this point well in this thread at MyDD:

I love the Iowa system, more states should use it.  The Iowa system forces you to stand up and be counted and actually listen to people trying to persuade you to change your mind.  How refreshing in a nation where people enter echo chambers and refuse to even consider alternate points of view anymore.  True democracy requires exercising your brain, not just your rights.

Well, I don’t believe much deliberation happens in the caucus room. Most people have made up their minds beforehand. I know some people walk in undecided and listened to speeches by their neighbors, but in my precinct we didn’t even have people make speeches for their candidates during the last caucus.

Anyway, some of the “persuasion” is just gaming the caucus math to deprive a rival of a delegate, or horsetrading such as promising someone a delegate slot if he comes over to your corner.

In the worst case scenario, people may feel pressure to stand for a candidate they do not support. I have not seen that happen, but over the years a few people have told me they don’t caucus anymore because of heavy-handed tactics they experienced in their precinct. One woman from a small town told the Des Moines Register that she does not plan to caucus because

“I have to stand up,” said store owner Leanna Plagman, who is wary of how voters show support in the Democratic caucuses by herding in groups. “They basically try to bully you into changing your vote.”

Even if you agree that not much deliberating goes on during the caucus, you might still like the system because

3. The second-choice option allows Iowans to stand up for a long-shot candidate without fear of “wasting” their votes.

In a primary, there’s an incentive not to vote for a candidate who trails in the polls if you have a preference among the front-runners. In contrast, at a precinct caucus, someone can stand up for, say, Chris Dodd, secure in the knowledge that there will be a chance to switch to a different candidate if Dodd is not viable.

I’m all for a primary with instant-runoff voting. I like the idea of being able to vote for my favorite candidate while also expressing a preference among candidates likely to pull more support.

The second-choice option is nice, but the reality is that caucus system “wastes” too many people’s votes because of the viability threshold. Three senior Iowa newsmen recently made this point in an op-ed piece for the New York Times on “Iowa’s Undemocratic Caucuses”:

it is possible that a second or third-tier candidate could garner a surprising 10 percent or 12 percent of the popular vote statewide and get zero delegates. (That’s because to be in the running for a delegate a candidate must have support from at least 15 percent of the people at a precinct caucus.) He or she may have done two or three times as well as expected among Iowa’s Democratic voters and get no recognition for it.

You might object that we shouldn’t worry about the candidates who are not viable. Some people like the fact that

4. The caucus system eliminates “fringe” candidates.

Traditionally, the Iowa caucuses have not been expected to decide the nomination. They have instead “winnowed the field” for the later nominating contests. In theory, this means that the Democratic Party is less likely to get saddled with a candidate lacking broad appeal.

I have a lot of problems with this argument. First, who’s a fringe candidate? Dick Gephardt was not viable in my precinct even in 1988, the year he won the Iowa caucuses. There were precincts in 2004 where Kucinich was viable and one or more of the front-runners were not viable.

Second, the viability threshold rewards conformity. Why should my ability to cast a vote in favor of my candidate depend on whether 15 percent of my politically-active neighbors agree with me? Why should support for a second-tier candidate get wiped out in one precinct while the same candidate may win delegates a few miles away?

Third, the low turnout associated with the caucuses arguably makes it more likely that a candidate with narrow appeal could win. A primary election involving several times more Democrats would be more likely to eliminate a fringe candidate.

I agree with the authors of that New York Times op-ed piece, who argue that the media should press for the Iowa Democratic Party to release the raw numbers of supporters for each candidate, rather than only the delegate counts from the precincts.

Some people tell me that despite all its problems, the caucus system is worth saving because

5. The caucuses help build the party and made Democrats competitive in Iowa.

An acquaintance who is old enough to remember the days before the caucuses were a big deal has impressed upon me how pathetic the Iowa Democratic Party’s organization was at the time. Republicans dominated this state. Over many cycles, Democratic presidential campaigns and their volunteers worked hard to identify supporters in every precinct, which gave the party something to build on. This acquaintance believes Democrats would be in a stronger position nationwide if every state held caucuses instead of primaries.

Conventional wisdom among Iowa political hacks holds that Tom Harkin would never have won his first Senate race if not for the work the presidential campaigns did before the 1984 caucuses. Harkin was running against an incumbent Republican in the huge Reagan landslide year. Though it can’t be proven, I suspect it’s true that the organizational work preceding the caucuses gave Harkin the network that made his victory possible.

To my mind, this is by far the strongest argument in favor of the caucus system.

As much as I would like to see Democrats in every state building networks at the precinct level, I don’t think this benefit outweighs all the downsides of the caucuses. When I talk to someone who is disappointed not to be able to attend a caucus, I don’t think it would be much comfort for me to say, “Well, look on the bright side–at least Democrats are building a strong party organization.”

Another argument in favor of the caucuses is related to this one:

6. Giving extra weight to rural and small-town voters will benefit Democrats in the general election.

As I discussed in part 2 and part 7 of this series, rural counties tend to have fewer caucus-goers per state delegate assigned. John Deeth discussed this disparity and its implications recently at Iowa Independent.

A candidate can win a primary with a commanding majority of votes in population centers, but a caucus rewards candidates with support spread evenly across the state.

In theory, this helps Democrats select candidates who will play well statewide. To win a majority of seats in the legislature, it helps to have a candidate at the top of the ticket who connects with voters outside major metropolitan areas.

I won’t claim this argument has no merit. I have also written that Democrats should nominate a candidate who can attract rural and small-town voters, in order to improve our chances at expanding Congressional majorities and winning control of more state legislatures.

As with the previous point, I just don’t think that benefit outweighs all the unfair aspects of the caucus system.

Occasionally I read an article reminding me that

7. The caucuses build community and social capital.

The New York Times article I linked to above includes this passage:

“It’s magic to see people stand up and declare their support for a candidate, and it’s a community activity,” said Gordon Fischer, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.

A friend whose husband teaches in Pella, a small college town that is very Republican, is missing the caucuses this year. They are spending the winter break with family who live more than a 10-hour drive away. She’s very disappointed, because in 2004 it felt so good to be sitting in a room full of committed Democrats in Pella. Democrats feel like an endangered species in that town. The caucuses helped them find and connect with each other.

Don McDowell, the founder of the Cyclone Conservatives blog, put up this post about how Republicans will be caucusing in rural O’Brien County. All the county’s precincts will caucus at the same location at 7 pm, and the county Republican Party will provide a soup dinner for the estimated 350 caucus-goers ahead of time at 5:45 pm. That sounds like a a great event for the community.

I’ve enjoyed my own precinct caucuses. I’ve made friends in the process and made connections that helped us find playmates for our son and dog-sitters for when we go out of town. My volunteer work before the caucuses introduced me to elderly residents of my neighborhood, whom I was later able to help with general-election absentee ballots.

Most Iowans who have caucused before look forward to caucusing again. Ultimately, though, I think the problems of the caucus system, particularly the barriers to participation by many individuals, outweigh the community benefits.

In addition, not everyone enjoys the caucus experience. Some people dislike crowds or prefer not to state their political views in public. I believe in the principle of a secret ballot, even where not required by law.

When I discuss the strange outcomes sometimes produced by caucus math, a reader occasionally objects that

8. Caucus math is not “screwy.”

You don’t have to spend long with a caucus calculator (such as this one created by asahopkins) to create scenarios in which shifting one or two percent of the raw votes leads to big changes in the delegate count. A handful of people attending my caucus may determine whether John Edwards gets 2 of the 6 delegates (33.3 percent) or 3 of the 6 delegates (50 percent), and only the percentage of delegates won will be reported.

MyDD and Daily Kos user wrog didn’t like the example I complained about in part 5 of this series. He or she argued that it’s mainly the 15 percent threshold that causes the problems; the other aspects of the formula converting raw votes to delegates are reasonable and fair. Wrog noted that Washington state has abolished the 15 percent threshold for its caucuses, which are scheduled for February 9. Good for them.

Wrog has a valid perspective, but any system that reduces the preferences of dozens or hundreds of caucus-goers to a handful of delegates will occasionally distort the results by magnifying the importance of a small shift in support from one candidate to another.

There is one other defense of the caucus system worth mentioning:

9. The caucuses give rank-and-file Democrats access to the party machinery and a chance to influence the party’s platform.

Writing at Iowa Independent, John Deeth vigorously defended the caucuses as representative democracy in action:

labeling the process itself “undemocratic” is unfair. The caucuses are as democratic as it gets. But they aren’t a direct democracy — they’re a representative democracy. A complicated, multi-level representative democracy, but still a democracy.

Those delegates that the national press views as mere number complicators are living, breathing people, neighborhood-level leaders elected to represent the Democrats of their precinct at a county convention. This convention chooses the district and state convention delegates that choose the national convention delegates. And it’s the national convention delegates, not the raw vote count, that determines the nomination.

The county convention also has some statutory authority. If there’s a vacancy in a courthouse office and a special election is needed, there’s no primary. The county convention chooses the nominee, and in a county dominated by one party, that can be decisive. In my county, conventions have nominated three county candidates in the last dozen years.  Conventions can also choose nominees if a primary is indecisive and no candidate wins more than 35 percent. After a four-way split in the 2002 primary, the 5th District Republican convention essentially elected Steve King to Congress.

Deeth has a point. I have no idea how it works in primary states, but in Iowa someone who really wants to be a delegate to a county convention has a good chance of getting elected to that position at a precinct caucus. The county convention selects state delegates for the presidential voting, among other things.

My diaries have focused on the presidential candidate selection part of the caucuses, but after that is completed, attendees have a chance to debate and approve or reject resolutions for the county platform. Most people go home after the presidential voting, but the diehards stay to submit resolutions. I am bringing four resolutions to my precinct caucus, all of which were drafted by non-profit groups I am involved with.

Individuals can also submit resolutions they have written themselves.

In my experience, all of the resolutions get approved at the precinct caucus (though many of them don’t pass the next level of scrutiny at the county conventions that are held in March). Sometimes there are a few “no” votes; for instance, anti-abortion Democrats may vote against a resolution drafted by Planned Parenthood.

But for the most part, any individual has a good chance of getting a resolution approved for consideration by the county platform committee, and an assertive individual also has a good chance of being selected as a delegate to the county convention.

I love to tell the story of a friend and onetime Kucinich supporter who lives in one of the most progressive neighborhoods in Des Moines. After the 2004 caucuses, I asked her how it went in her precinct. “It was great,” she said. “All of my resolutions passed but one!” You had a resolution that didn’t pass your precinct? I never heard of that happening.

It turned out that she had submitted three resolutions, calling on the United States to unilaterally disarm itself of all chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The resolutions on chemical and biological weapons passed, but even in one of the most liberal precincts in the state, where there was a strong Kucinich contingent, Iowa caucus-goers rejected the resolution calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

I don’t know how party platforms are drafted in primary states, but I imagine that it’s more difficult for an ordinary voter to become involved in the process.

Again, I don’t believe that benefit outweighs the many problems of the caucus system.

If I have left out your favorite argument in favor of the caucuses, please post a comment, and I will update the diary with my response.

Sometime in the next few weeks I will publish the final diary in this series, about the role of precinct captains on caucus night. I will mention not only my own observations, but also stories I am collecting from other Iowans. If you’ve got a story about how precinct captains helped their candidates at your caucus, please let me know in the comments or by e-mail (desmoinesdem AT

Take the poll and comment if you like.

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  • This is a devastating critique of Iowa's caucus system

    Even if there were three or four good arguments for caucuses, the inconvenience and time required, as you detail in number 1, would outweigh them by a long ways. The disenfranchisement of the frail elderly and folks who work nights is just unacceptable.

    I don’t suppose the powers that be want to change the system. But this would be a great issue for ICAN or somebody like that to take on (is ICAN still around?)

    • no one wants to take this on

      because the caucuses bring Iowa so much attention. We can’t switch to a primary because NH state law says they have the first primary.

      It wouldn’t bother me so much if Iowa were the only caucus state, but more and more states have adopted caucuses to save money, and they have all the disadvantages with none of the party-building advantages.

      ICAN is still around, by the way.

      • are there reform proposals

        like how about a proxy form, like they use at shareholder meetings.

        A voter could list her candidates in order of preference on a form, sign it over to a designated proxy, and then have that person carry the form into the caucus, where it would be counted and moved around into the different viability groups as if it was real person.